Tuesday, May 09, 2006


“Look,” a few of my friends say, “Why do you never write about something ‘cute’ -- you know, like your kitties. If you wrote something ‘cute’ maybe you could sell some writing for a change.” (They also are convinced that if I wrote some porn, it would sell but don’t explain how they know or what they think porn is anyway. Or why I would be able to write it.)

Okay. Kitties. But they’re not really very “cute,” you know. The two of them are roasting alongside me under what is supposed to be my work light. They think they are very imposing -- formidable -- indomitable. A lion and a tiger!

I do think that part of their appeal is that they’re about the size of a very young baby and bring out one’s maternal impulses. In fact, I read something the other day about how EMT’s and nurses practice how to insert a breathing tube in a baby (a very tricky but sometimes life-sustaining necessity) by inserting them down the throats of cats, whose throats are about the same size as a baby’s -- which is maybe why their cries have the same attention-getting pitch as babies. (The cats are mercifully anesthetized for these tube practices, but they must wake up with very sore throats, thinking, “Whatever I swallowed, I’ll never do it again.”)

My two cats get a lot of cuddling and baby talk -- more than they want sometimes, since they are adult cats with agendas of their own. At first I was worried that they might not purr, but they do -- even vary the pitch, speed and loudness which I hadn’t noticed in other cats. Baby bears purr when they nurse and I think it would be a good thing if human beings of all ages purred now and then. It’s such a satisfactory sound. Once in a while these cats decide they ARE babies, but then I get bugged by the neediness and perversely remind them of their cat agendas. “Don’t you have anything to DO?” I demand, just as my mother used to demand of me.

I didn’t get cats this time until the August I had a teaching job, which I thought would bring in enough money to pay for neutering, shots, cat food and little felt mice stuffed with catnip. In November I quit the job, which was quite intolerable. (Half of new teachers quit in the first five years, no matter how much money they owe for college.) Too late to return the cats.

I have a pattern in cat preference based on color. My first childhood cat was yellow -- fancy folks call them “ginger” -- and my first Browning, MT., cat was calico. I can’t remember where she came from. So I had it in my head that I wanted one of each so that the two could keep each other busy when I had things to do. I watched the classified ads and was delighted to see a pair of sisters: one calico and one yellow-striped. They were in Great Falls. I called ahead, threw a cat carrier in the pickup and took off. Thus began an experiment in genetics versus environment.

The cats’ house was for sale, a very nice split level; the mother was grim; there were three little girls, which I thought was a good sign because these kittens would have been packed around, dressed up, and generally humanized; the mother cat seemed calm and curious; the human father, an Air Force man, was summoned by phone. The calico turned out to be a tortoiseshell and the yellow stripe was certainly a very ombré sort of stripe and more gravy than ginger. But we made the deal -- free, of course -- and I left. One little girl became hysterical with grief and I was worried but the mother said, “Just leave. Take the kittens and get out of here.” She meant it.

The day was very hot and the yellow kitten nearly expired though I had a jar of water and a washrag with which I dampened its fur. I ought to have stopped by a sprinkler and held her in the spray. The vet who altered the cats, a little young, left each of them with a furry little udder effect which I didn’t like much, but which has since helped to identify them at a bit of distance. I have no idea how or why he did it. When I told the receptionist that the tortoiseshell was a “confetti calico,” she was offended. SHE was the keeper of colors.

I named the tortie “Squibs” (which my next door neighbor can’t pronounce and calls “Scrubs”) and the yellow one “Crackers,” names from an old prairie joke about funny names for things. (Squibs-and-crackers is supposed to mean "pants". Barnacle is supposed to mean “bed,” so I’m saving Barnacle for a dog name.) The two babies soon showed very divergent personalities except for a scrambling intention to explore everyplace and eat as much as they could hold. I shut them into my bedroom while I was making preparations, but they flattened out and slid easily through the small space under the door cut by previous owners to accommodate a carpet, now gone.

Squibs is small, a ten-pound cat. I’ve known several Torties and they were all small. Her personality is LARGE, almost Siamese. She’s very stubborn and so oblivious to any admonitions that for a long time I thought she was deaf and would throw a slipper or magazine to get her attention. If she thought she was in trouble, she screamed. When the back of the pickup was open, she jumped in and when I spoke to her -- didn’t even touch or yell -- she screamed. Her rear assembly was a little faulty and I wondered if she’d been thrown or kicked.

Once the kittens were big and oriented enough go out by themselves (I worried about the village owl who sat in the tree and gloated: “Hoo, hoo, hoo!”), she explored far and wide -- but then she would panic and call for us desperately all the way back to where Crackers and I sat reading. (Well, I was reading while Crackers was sleeping, our favorite and synergistic pursuits.) I’d answer, “We’re in here! We haven’t disappeared! Here we are!” By her tiny Doppler effect, I could track her approach.

Now, five years old, Squibbie is still the explorer but she thinks about such things much more and talks less. Since I’ve been walking for my diabetes, she is very curious about where I go. I cross the street and go around that block, which includes the village park. Somehow the cats have learned not to cross the street, partly because it’s the dividing line with Caspar’s territory -- Caspar being the big dominating cat across the street. So Squibbie cranes her neck as I go up the north side of the block and disappear. It’s amazing how long her neck can get.

I do my tour around the park, which is where the owl “lives,” and come back on the south side -- which totally astounds the cat, still looking where I disappeared. When I attract her attention, she leaps in the air, runs to meet me, and then stops to roll in some dirt so I won’t get the wrong idea. When I go to the post office two blocks to the north, the story is the same except that there are excellent places to lie in wait. When I begin to get close to home, she charges out from behind some iris spears and grabs my ankle. “Gotcha!”

There is something about the genome of a three-colored cat that makes it a little smarter, a little more predacious, a little more resourceful. Sometimes I call Squibbie “the velveteen lizard.” She’s emotional, with big round green-grape eyes that almost take up her whole face except for a pink nose which is a good indicator of her state. Bright pink means either she’s aroused or it’s cold outside. Pale pink means indifference and warmth. Now and then I call her the “mottled cat” or “pickle eyes” or “babycat,” because she’s soft and seems more boneless -- but she is less willing to be held unless I’m at the computer. If she wants to be held then, she walks in front of the keyboard and puts one front paw in the middle of my chest. I rarely refuse.

Crackers is a broad-butted blonde who mostly sleeps her life away. She might as well be a sofa cushion most of the time. I had some very nice beaded sofa cushions (I beaded them myself!) until she ate the beads off. She also enjoys the buttons on my shirts and nightgown and the bows on my red reading glasses, but not those on other glasses. She likes to chew pins and needles, so I have to watch carefully if I’ve been sewing. Evidently near-sighted, she squints her aquamarine eyes and rubs her cool, damp, pencil-eraser nose along my wrist and up the side of my hand. And she never says anything.

For a while Crackers got very fat, which caused my neighbor to mock her, and made her resistant to the neighbor’s pre-school granddaughter who was determined to pick her up by grabbing her around the middle. Crackers just made herself heavy and hissed, but I was afraid that the girl would get bitten and had to get more tough with her than I do with the cats. Of course, I can swat the cats. Finally, I spoke to the grandmother about rabies. (The cats catch bats all the time and this county is often quarantined.) I told her that if the cats bit the girl, their heads would have to be sawed off and sent to a pathologist so that the girl could be spared rabies shots. She wasn’t that impressed, but I convinced her that it might traumatize the little girl to know she caused the deaths of the cats she so wanted to carry around.

Crackers also developed a skin condition, little knots of scab that itched fiercely. The vet said it was a hormone problem, but I had no money to treat it -- which was probably a good thing. I dabbed Vaseline on the scabs to ease the itching, learned to sleep with her scratching (From the beginning she has slept in my left armpit.), and whatever it was went away when the fall fur-growing cycle began. She gets hay fever, too, and makes terrible sounds like a grandmother who falls asleep in her rocking chair after supper.

Now how can anyone seriously call all this “cute”? I call them a genetic puzzle. How can the two of them be “womb-mates” and so different? One is twice the size of the other -- it’s the little one who is fierce. One is dark and one is light. One can hardly be separated from me and the other does NOT want to be detained from her roaming. The only thing they have in common is that from the back alley they can both hear a catfood cat open.


Patia said...

Cute story! They're strange little beasts, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

How can the two of them be “womb-mates” and so different?

They probably have different fathers, even though they are littermates. More than one male can mate with a female when she is in heat, and all the resulting kittens are born at once. Happens all the time.

Suzanne R said...

Your vet and mine must be related, because my little Stevie has that flap of skin hanging down from when she was spayed, too. It gives her kind of a rectangular look as she lost her tail in an industrial accident at my business when she was a shop cat, before I adopted her.

I enjoyed this immensely!